Buddhism & "No-Self"

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Eastern enlightenment religions have been gaining popularity throughout the western world for the past few decades, with many people attracted to a "different" way of experiencing religion. As with many other enlightenment religions, Buddhism requires disciples to understand concepts that are not readily explainable: one such concept is that of no-self. In this essay I shall discuss the no-self from a number of modern perspectives; however, as no-self is difficult to describe I shall focus on both the self and no-self. Beginning with psychological aspects, and neurophysiological research on transcendental meditation, I shall discuss the impact of modern brain science on our understanding of the self and transcendence. Next I will outline the relationship between quantum physics and non-locality, as this gives a western scientific explanation for no-self. Returning to the original source of Buddhism, I will briefly outline the discussion between Siddhartha and Vaccha regarding atman, then discuss the mind and no-self and their relationship to liberation. Finally I will summarize a few issues that the western mindset may face approaching this topic.

The Buddhist concept of "no-self" is an essential element on the path to spiritual freedom presented by the Buddha Gautama Siddhartha Sakyamuni. It is claimed by many Buddhists that at the age of thirty-five Siddhatta achieved samyaksambodhi, a state of supreme enlightenment, while meditating under a tree. He had been born into excess and protected from life, and then chose to live as an aesthetic. He found that the former stifled to spirit and the latter stifled the mind – the only answer was a middle path of moderation. Siddhatta then lived and taught his way for another forty-five years as a Buddha before dying, or attaining parinirvana, at the ripe age of eighty. (Hopfe & Woodward, 2007, p. 123-125)

Modern psychology attempts to scientifically explain many aspects of our lives. Yet it seems that when psychology meets religion the result is rarely a fair compromise. As an example, if faced with a person claiming to have no sense of self a psychologist may suspect some form of dissociative disorder. An excellent modern example of spiritualism clashing with psychological diagnoses is that of the much-maligned Aleister Crowley; after years of searching for his own samyaksambodhi he entered into a period of silence and claimed enlightenment – the psychological description of Crowley is that of a paranoid schizophrenic who declined into catatonia. I simply wonder where the line is that divides the religious experience from the psychopathological.

Neurophysiologists have shown interest in that state of no-self that Buddhist monks can reach while in prayer. It has been found, using a specialized brain imaging technique based on CT scanning, that the brain-state of Buddhist monks in deep meditation is radically different from that of the average waking person (Newberg et al., 2001). In fact, during meditation the body changes its physiological ‘state' to a more beneficial pattern (Weiten, 2005, p. 145). This is not to say that Buddhism is "the path" – similar brain patterns have also been found in Franciscan Nuns deep in prayer. Interesting work has also been done researching the effect of electromagnetic interference on brain function. Researchers found that certain frequencies could be found in many houses where reports of poltergeist activity or religious rapture occurred; when certain frequencies were projected onto laboratory subjects they reported feeling an "ominous presence" behind them (despite being alone in a sealed room). More intriguing was the result of projecting the rapture frequency onto the brain; many, but not all, subjects reported feeling non-local and described a state of pure bliss while the frequency was projected. This would indicate that it is possible to induce a sense of no-self in receptive people.

Modern physics seems to reinforce many...
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